Norman Lewis (1909-1979)

Norman Lewis was born in Harlem, New York.  In his early youth he was a pageboy for the George M. Cohan Theater and a seaman traveling through South America. Lewis studied at Columbia University and with Augusta Savage at the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts.   He taught at the Harlem Art Center and at PS 139. Later he was an instructor at the Art Students League.  A part of the Harlem Renaissance group of the 1930s, he became a member of the 306 Group.

As in the case of every artists, Lewis experimented with various styles and phases.  In the 1930s his style was predominantly figurative.  In the 1940s abstraction was slowly becoming apparent, even in his figurative works.  It wasn’t until the 1950s that Lewis’s mature unique style evolved.  He shared philosophical concepts in his creative approach to his work with the artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement. "for Lewis…abstraction was an important pathway to artistic freedom and individual freedom."

Lewis, unlike, other African-American artists, had the ability to communicate both with African-Americans and with the White mainstream world. With new found artistic freedom he became a part of the famous group of American avant-garde artist who rejuvenated American Art and the New York art scene. He began exhibiting his work at the Marian Willard Gallery in 1946, where he exhibited with well known artists like David Smith.  The "Studio 35” exhibition curated by the Museum of Modern Art’s Alfred H. Barr Jr. was a showcase for Abstract Expressionist works. The show included Robert Motherwell and David Lippold and Lewis was the only African-American in the exhibition.

"Lewis was an active participant in two distinct art milieux." Even with his association with the New York School, Lewis did not abandon his roots in the Black community. "[Lewis] believed art should be used to promote social change."   From 1963-6, he, along with other African-American artists, formed with Romare Bearden the Spiral Group.  In 1969, with Bearden and Ernest Crichlow, he established the Cinque Gallery.  In 1971 he withdrew his work from the Whitney Museum’s Contemporary Black American Art show, after the BECC boycotted the show.
 A few years prior to his death, from 1973-76, Lewis was commissioned to paint a mural for Boys High school in Brooklyn, New York.  The same year the mural was completed, The Graduate Center of City University of New York held Lewis’s last major exhibition, Norman Lewis: A Retrospective.

There has been a resurgence of interest in Lewis’s work.  His contribution to American culture is being reassessed; his work is being reconsidered with postmodern hindsight as the post-colonial aesthetic and its impact on mainstream art has been observed.  The stature of Lewis’s body of work is such that he can be seen as a paradigmatic artist and not merely as a late addition to the Abstract Expressionist canon.

By  Susan Inniss


 

For Work by Norman Lewis